New spines from old bones

Friday 4th March 2011
Full spine.

Bones of people who died up to a hundred years ago are being used in development of new treatments for chronic back pain. It is the first time old bones have been used in this way, as research brings together the latest University of Leeds computer modelling techniques, with archaeology and anthropology expertise at the University of Bristol.

With Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funding of nearly £1.1m, spines from up to 40 skeletons housed in museums and university anatomy collections are being analysed in the 5-year project ‘Engineering Solutions to Back Pain: An Interdisciplinary Approach’ began last year running to 2013.

The data generated, on different spine conditions and on how spines vary in size and shape, is playing a key role in the development of innovative computer models.

This will enable the potential impact of new treatments and implant materials (such as keyhole spinal surgery and artificial disc replacements) to be evaluated before use on patients. Ultimately, it will also be possible to use the models to pinpoint the type of treatment best suited to an individual patient.

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said: "Back pain is an extremely common condition, but everyone has a slightly different spine so developing new treatments can be a real challenge. This investment could significantly improve quality of life for millions of people around the world, so it’s fantastic that the research is being carried out in the UK. It's also truly fascinating that old bones and very new technology can come together to deliver benefits for patients."

This is the first software of its kind designed for treatment of back conditions. Research will also speed up clinical trials for new treatments, which currently can take up to 10 years.

Data provided by the old bones will supplement similar data collected from bodies donated to science, which are limited in number, mainly coming from older age groups.

“The idea is that a company will be able to come in with a design for a new product. We will simulate how it would work on different spines. The good thing about computer models is that we can use them over and over again, so we can test lots of different products on the same model,” says Dr Ruth Wilcox, (left) from the University of Leeds, who is leading the project.

“If we were doing this in a laboratory we would need many new donated spines each time we wanted to test a treatment out.”

This computer modelling breakthrough is possible thanks to recent advances in micro-CAT (computed aided tomography) scanning, and to new techniques developed at the University of Leeds enabling data from micro-CAT scans to be transformed into sophisticated computer models.

Computed aided tomography (CAT) scans use X-rays to build up 3D images from multiple cross-sectional pictures of body organs or tissues.

“The wider the pool of spinal data at our disposal, the more effective the computer models will be in terms of demonstrating the impact of treatments on different back conditions and back types,” says Dr Kate Robson Brown, (right) University of Bristol’s Archaeology & Anthropology Department.

“The computer modelling software should be available for testing newly developed products and treatments in the next few years and along the way this cutting-edge research could even provide new insight into how our ancestors evolved!”

EPSRC audio slide show.


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